At Tower Books on Watt Avenue in Sacramento, I first spotted Charlton Ogburn’s The Mysterious William Shakespeare: The Myth and the Reality, in a stack of new books, just after its 1984 release. I had learned to love Shakespeare early. But I think I found Shakespeare biographies—A.L. Rowse’s, for instance—dull and faintly disquieting: sparse collections of mundane facts, along with unfounded conjecture about the writer’s theatrical and poetical life. (I mustn’t inject too much 20-20 hindsight.) Nevertheless, I believed the Stratford story; I probably thought the villager’s son Hamnet had been named with the playwright’s greatest creation in mind.
I remember picking up Ogburn’s hefty hardback, then examining the dust-jacket flap. Oh no. This was another debunking-Shakespeare book, like those Bacon-wrote-Shakespeare tomes I’d heard vague innuendoes about. And who was this Edward de Vere character? What Earl of Oxford? I wasn’t yet impressed that David McCullough had stuck his historian’s neck out and written the laudatory Foreword.
But youth is flexible, thank goodness. Moreover, many readers have memories like mine, of flipping to a random page in a book and finding a few life-altering words. Ogburn’s magic words for me were that the Stratford man’s daughters were illiterate. How could this data square with the bookish, resourceful women in the plays? And what of the second-best bed willed to the long-suffering wife? Even close-mouthed Brutus was kinder to his Portia.
What I next examined (I think) was the chronological table: the orthodox dating of “Shakespeare’s” works in one column, the misspent life of Shakspere in another, and the life of Edward de Vere (with properly adjusted composition dates for the plays and poems) in still another. Plainly, Ogburn had done much homework. I was hooked. What made me an Oxfordian was Ogburn’s exposé of the slander the orthodox Shakespeare camp uses against dissenters; and conversely, the sheer evidence Oxfordians can present.
Playing celebrity hunter, I sent Mr. Ogburn a congratulatory note care of the publisher, asking about the Shakespeare Oxford Society. He graciously put me in touch with the Society. I wrote letters to the local paper (e.g. after the Supreme Court Shakespeare identity “trial”); later, an article for the De Vere Society, then for the SOS. Eventually, I proofread the SOS Newsletter; Morse Johnson would send galleys from Cincinnati, and I would FedEx them from Sacramento with small edits.
I’m no scholar. I admire the brilliant Oxfordians amassing archival evidence for our candidate. Occasionally, I’d find low-hanging fruit left dangling by Stratford orchard-keepers: in 1990, I recounted Queen Elizabeth’s outburst at a ragtag company of student actors: she demanded torchlights and departed the play, leaving actors and audience in the dark. Transmogrified in Hamlet (“Lights! Lights! Lights!”), this is surely an authentic trace of young De Vere’s mind: he was present at the kerfuffle. (Pop quiz: it was 1564. What so-called literary giant was in pre-Jacobean diapers that year?)
— Tom Goff
“How I Became an Oxfordian” is edited by Bob Meyers. You may submit your essay on this topic (500 words or less in an editable format such as MS Word), along with a digital photo of yourself, to:email@example.com. Also include a sentence about yourself (e.g., “John J. Smith is a businessman in San Francisco.”).
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